Comrat, Gagauzia – Mihail Formuzal sits in a comfortable office in a three-storey administration building on Lenin Street in Comrat, capital of Gagauzia, the autonomous region of Moldova. In front of the building, dozens of fresh red flowers are laid on the pedestal of a statue of the communist leader Vladimir Lenin.
Serving up Turkish coffee and referring to himself as Gagauzia’s president, Formuzal said: “I am a democrat. I battled against the communist regime [which ruled the country until 2009], but now I wonder whether it was worth it.”
In a referendum Formuzal initiated, Gagauzia’s population voted against a free trade deal with the EU, set to be finalised in late June. Almost 98 percent of the region’s citizens voted in favour of the Russia-led Customs Union instead.
The Customs Union – still under development and currently with only Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan as its members – aims to set up a free trade system. Russian President Vladimir Putin wants all former Soviet states to join the bloc, his brainchild, and needs Ukraine and Moldova to finalise the process.
Relying on such popular approval in the referendum, Formuzal, governor of Gagauzia, says he is fighting “mutant communists” – his term for the ruling coalition government in Moldova’s capital of Chisinau, which seeks to integrate the country into the European Union , a bloc he associates with a communist regime.
In neighbouring Ukraine, former president Victor Yanukovich rejected a trade agreement with the EU last November in favour of closer ties with Russia, prompting months of street protests that eventually led to his fleeing the country, and Moscow’s annexation of Crimea .
Rejecting the EU
|Mihail Formuzal says the central government is robbing Moldova of its future by trying to ‘force’ integration with the EU [Tamila Varshalomidze/Al Jazeera]|
Moldova is the poorest country in Europe with almost 200,000 of its 3.5 million people currently working in the Russian Federation. But the central government in Chisinau believes the country’s future – for the sake of economic development and national security – depends on closer ties with the EU.
Gagauzia’s leader, however, says Moldova should stay neutral, otherwise it would risk disintegration with the breakaway region of Transnistria already seeking to join Russia .
Formuzal says the EU plans to merge Moldova with Romania, a neighbouring EU member state, restoring the geopolitical order of the region to the pre-Soviet era.
“If Moldova joins the EU and gives up its sovereignty [by joining Romania], we [Gagauzia] will go on our own path as an independent state,” says Formuzal.
If Moldova joins the EU, the Gagauz people as “a unique ethnic group” will lose their identity, he adds.
Good old days
This Turkic community of less than 200,000 people is no stranger to transformations. When they were defeated by the Russian Empire in early 19th century, they abandoned their Islamic faith and became Orthodox Christians, but kept their Turkic language, Gagauz.
Gagauzia declared itself independent in 1991 after the break-up of the Soviet Union, but Moldova resolved the conflict peacefully by awarding it autonomy – the right of “external self-determination” – in 1994.
Natalia Dobrioglo, an ethnic Bulgarian citizen of Gagauzia who has worked for almost two years as a cleaner in Sochi before the Winter Olympic Games, says she does not even want to hear about the EU.
“Russia has been our employer forever, so many of us Gagauzs work there,” says Dobrioglo, whose husband Ivan works in St Petersburg, installing heating systems.
“What will happen to my family if the Russian job market closes for Moldovans because of Europe? There is no way we can survive on Gagauz salaries.”
She blamed the situation on the Soviet Union’s last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, whose policies of glasnost, “openness”, and perestroika , “restructuring”, eventually led to the dissolution of the USSR.
“Gorbachev has created this mess. We [former Soviet countries] used to live together. Why did it have to end like this?” Dobrioglo says. “I still remember everything. I could eat everything. I would go to a shop and for five kopek [coins] I would buy everything I wanted. What will you buy now for five ban [coins] in Moldova? Not even matches.”
Struggle to relate
On the other side of the debate is Ludmila Mitioglo, president of the European Centre “Pro-Europa” in Comrat. She says politicians manipulate the people, creating confusion in their minds with negative stereotypes about the EU.
|Ludmila Mitioglo says politicians are manipulating Gagauz people with negative stereotypes about the EU [Tamila Varshalomidze/Al Jazeera]|
“They don’t know what is Europe [the EU]. Whatever they know about it comes from some local politicians who are manipulating them. They spread stereotypes about Europe that it is Romanians [arch-rivals of Moldovans] and homosexuals,” says Mitioglo.
The devout Orthodox Christians of Gagauz view homosexuality as a negative influence. Al Jazeera talked to a number of people in Comrat and Chisinau who said the EU is forcing Moldova to reform its legislation, so that homosexuals are protected against violence and discrimination.
Mitioglo says the Gagauz favour the Russia-led Customs Union more as they associate it with the Soviet Union that gave them decades of stability.
“In this region, people feel closer to Russia, they are calmer like that,” says Mitioglo.
Russia acts as the driving cultural and economic force in this country, including Gagauzia. Almost 33 percent of Moldova’s products are exported to Russia , and there are about 280 Russian-language schools across the country.
“The more EU gets closer, the more they start getting nervous, the more they reject it,” says Mitioglo, putting the blame on the current Moldovan government for failing to explain the benefits of EU integration to the people.
“They talk about Europe as if it was a fairy tale. They are not explaining the progress of development in the newly joined EU states.”
Follow Tamila Varshalomidze on Twitter: @tamila87v